Published April 19, 2016
Many cultures tell stories in various forms of great birds reborn from their own ashes. Chicago-based theater artist Sean Graney knows these tales. His own writing at times has reinterpreted plays from the ancient Greek world, home to one such phoenix myth.
But also within Graney’s body of work is a phoenix-like story, one that gave rise to “A Ring Never Ends,” a new play he has written and directed. It will premiere April 28 in the Black Box Theatre in the Center for the Arts.
The production is presented by the Department of Theatre & Dance in conjunction with the UB Humanities Institute and the Department of English, with support from Robert G. and Carol L. Morris Visiting Artist Fund.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. April 28-30, 2 p.m. on April 30 and May 1, and 6 p.m. on May 1. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $10 for students and seniors.
“I did a theatrical adaptation of this play in a workshop more than a year ago that didn’t contain the critical elements of the current version,” says Graney, the WBFO Eileen Silvers Visiting Professor in the Arts and Humanities.
“I got boos.”
Though heartbreaking, the experience proved inspirational, and Graney soon dismantled his original theatrical adaptation of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” a cycle of four dramas, into a reimagined work that picks up where the “Ring” cycle left off — at the end of the world.
“That reaction to the early workshop started me thinking about the great affinity audiences have for Wagner’s material. It’s an almost religious-like attachment to the ‘Ring,’” he said. “That led me to ask what would happen if the ‘Ring’ was actually treated as a religion.”
Graney saw all the elements of religion in the “Ring” cycle: deities, moral lessons, heroes and great stories.
What he lacked was scripture. So he inserted it into the story himself.
Graney’s play picks up 20 years post-Wagner when a character finds one of the well-bound playbills that often accompany operas in the remains of a former performance space.
Mistaking the playbill for a Bible, the character reads the program’s apocalyptic visions as having played out in the world, the events that brought about the current destruction.
And like the lesson implied by the phoenix myth, “A Ring Never Ends” contemplates how reinvention emerges from destruction.
The manner in which this piece evolved over time is not typical for Graney, but reworking the classics is his creative concentration.
“Most of my work involves taking an existing play that’s very much of another generation,” he says. “I study the author’s intention, try to capture the original spirit and deliver that to a contemporary audience.”
That practice explains much of the theater’s history up to the middle of the 19th century, according to Graney.
“Nearly every playwright up to that time took a well-known story and told their own version of the tale,” he says. “This applies to the Greek tragedies and it’s also what the Elizabethans did. Common lore was the inspiration for their productions.”
It’s what Graney did for “All Our Tragic,” an adaptation of all 32 surviving Greek tragedies — performed in a single day.
He completed that project after being named a fellow in 2013 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. “All Our Tragic” won six Joseph Jefferson Awards, including best director and best adaptation.
Graney also presented the play in 2014 and remounted it in 2015 for Hypocrites, the company he founded in 1997 and where he currently serves as artistic director.
The Humanities Institute announced in April of last year that Graney would serve as the 2015-16 WBFO Eileen Silvers Visiting Professor.
The program, funded by a bequest from Eileen Silvers, BA ’70, and proceeds from the 2012 sale by UB of radio station WBFO, brings world-class scholars and artists to UB for short-term residencies.
“I’m excited to be here,” Graney says. “It’s great working with students and I’m thrilled to be at the university.”